ALPENA - After more than a year and a half and investing $140,000 the Alpena County Board of Commissioners revealed details surrounding the "secret" project that is being considered at Alpena County Regional Airport. If things fall into place, Alpena could become one of the nation's leaders in unmanned aircraft testing, development, maintenance and manufacturing.
The commissioners issued a press release on Thursday that outlined a path that ultimately could lead to the creation of an industry cluster at the airport and its neighbor - the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. The airport is on the verge of applying to become a "Center of Excellence," which would lend itself favorably in the pursuit of the drone business and has also entered into an agreement with the University of Michigan's aerospace engineering faculty in which both parties will develop an unmanned aircraft system, including test site procedures and other requirements demanded of the FAA.
Chairman Cam Habermehl said it has taken a long time to get to this point, but thinks Alpena is as good as any of the other candidates for the drone project. He said if it becomes a reality, it is going to be one of the biggest economic development successes in Alpena's history.
"We have some pretty big heavy hitters involved from Gov. (Rick) Snyder, Sen. Carl Levin, (state Rep.) Pete Pettalia and (state Sen.) John Moolenaar. The higher-ups at the FAA and military are also involved," Habermehl said. "Everyone is really positive about the project, and I think it is going to happen. We still have a lot of work to do, but I think it is finally going to take off.
"These are going to be high-paying jobs, but we're more excited about the spinoff of this and the jobs that it creates. I think down the road this could be bigger for Alpena than what the cement plant was years ago."
Commissioner Lyle VanWormer echoed Habermehl's thoughts on how the drone facilities in Alpena would bolster its economy. He said if the plans progress as he expects, that looking back a decade from now could be surprising by how much has been accomplished in such a little amount of time.
"At this point I think we are close and by fall we should have a lot more information," VanWormer said. "The potential for this is unlimited and I think someday we are going to look back and not believe what we were able to do. This involves so many people and all are in support of it. I think it is going to go we just need to keep moving forward. I think the investment we made is going to pay off and the economic impact to the region will be tremendous."
Habermehl said Alpena has several unique characteristics, which makes it the perfect match for a UAS. He said there is competition for the project, but Alpena can offer things other communities can't.
"We have the base, the lake, and the largest area of restricted airspace this side of the Mississippi," Habermehl said. "I don't think they really want to be testing these things over heavily populated areas. We're unique here with the airspace and our remoteness and the property we have available. There aren't many other places in the country that can do what we can do and provide what they need for the testing and training."
The secrecy surrounding the project had some in the community wondering if the money spent to hire Explorer Solutions to help find a niche for the airport was worth it and questioned the investment due to the lack of details. Habermehl said it was critical to remain quiet about things until progress got to the point to where revealing it wouldn't jeopardize the project.
"We paid a lot of money to have this plan put together, and a lot of other communities are looking for something too," Habermehl said. "We wanted to stay below their radar and keep them from coming in and taking our plan until we got everything in place."
Habermehl said he understands the amount of taxpayers' money toward this project is large, but he said in order to make the area thrive, sometimes you need to take a risk.
"We could sit back and do nothing forever and everybody can complain or we can go out, swing for the fence, and try to get this done," Habermehl said. "If it happens it will be great. If we don't, well ... if we never do anything Alpena is going to be going downhill. Somebody has to take a little bit of a risk, but the benefit could be huge, and I think it will be."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.